Mark D. Tooley: The Not Entirely Forgotten War ... Marking the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War

Roundup: Talking About History

[ark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.]

NOT MANY AMERICANS are commemorating the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War. Outside Washington, D.C., over 100 West Virginians recently assembled for their annual commemoration of their own community's role in the "war that made America." Creditably, PBS aired a documentary with that very title last year. And the Smithsonian Institution currently has an equally competent exhibit on the French and Indian War called "Clash of Civilizations." But other commemorations of the conflict are scarce, which is unfortunate.

There would be no United States without the French and Indian War, which ousted the French from North America and ensured Anglo-American dominance. The conflict also transformed a young Virginia woodsman named George Washington into an international figure. It gave a previously unknown unity to the English colonies in America. And it created the financial burden for the British Empire that led directly to the unwanted taxes on the colonies that would fuel a revolution. That revolution would succeed, in part, because the French would support it, in retaliation for their defeat by the British 20 years earlier.

The French and Indian War has long been overshadowed by the Revolution. And its very name makes it somewhat politically-incorrect. Most academics shun that title, preferring to call it the Seven Years War, which describes the global conflict at the time between Britain and France.

But the citizens of Capon Bridge, West Virginia still prefer to call it the French and Indian War. On April 18, 1756, several dozen members of the Virginia Regiment left nearby Fort Edwards on the Cacapon River in pursuit of the enemy. One year before, English General Edward Braddock had led what was the largest army ever in North America into a trap outside what is now Pittsburgh. Over 900 men of his command, including the general himself, would fall to the ambushing French and Indians. The young George Washington would help organize the retreat.

Colonial America's frontier was left wide open to Indian attacks on farms and settlements that were often led by French officers. An observer in Cumberland, Maryland would observe that the entire panorama to the west was filled with flumes of smoke rising from burning farms. Virginia organized a regiment under Colonel Washington to organize defenses, like Fort Edwards, against attacks.

The Virginia soldiers who left Fort Edwards in April of 1756 may have been lured out by the Indians' murder of a local miller. But their response was ill-planned. They were barely two miles out before being ambushed by a force of at least 100 Indians, led by a French officer. Seventeen Virginians were killed in what would be called "Mercer's Massacre," or the Battle of the Great Cacapon. The disaster prompted the Virginia legislature to appropriate more money for the colony's defenses, and Colonel Washington, who often visited Fort Edwards, would construct the more formidable Fort Loudoun in Winchester, 20 miles to the east.

Meanwhile, hundreds of settlers left the Appalachians for the safety of the Blue Ridge. Many of those who remained, including whole families, were either slain or taken captive, often transported by Indians raiding parties beyond the Ohio River. Sites such as Fort Edwards, which was a stockade built around the home of early settler Joseph Edwards, were a refuge not only for soldiers but also for local residents, who fled to them during attacks.

Many of the local people were hardened Scots-Irish immigrants, long accustomed to warfare. Those who had fled North Ireland had few illusions about the hardships of the American frontier. They could not afford land in the safer tidewater regions farther east. And the tidewater gentry who governed the colonies encouraged the Scots-Irish to settle on the frontier as a buffer. The Ulstermen often fought as viciously as their tribal enemies until British armies finally defeated the French in Pennsylvania and Canada, after which the tribes withdrew permanently into the Ohio country.

SOME PEOPLE have not forgotten those battles. When a townhouse development threatened to overtake the Fort Edwards site in the 1990s, Capon Bridge area residents bought the 24 acres of land and built a visitors center. For over a decade, these descendants have hosted an annual Colonial Feast to commemorate the Battle of the Great Cacapon and their warrior ancestors.

Before the meal this year, a woman selling her corn meal (polenta) recipe described to the audience how the recipe had been passed down from an ancestor who had escaped from Indian captivity during the French and Indian War. The story-teller's voice broke with emotion as she remembered how her great-great-great-great grandmother swam across the Ohio River to safety. "Had she not survived, I would not be here today," she recalled.

The local Methodist minister offered an invocation thanking the Almighty for the legacy of their ancestors. Many feast participants are dressed in colonial garb. One distinguished gentleman in a red frock coat and a tri-cornered hat refused to step out of character. He introduced himself as Mr. Simms, who maintained a plantation on the South Branch of the Potomac River until he was slain by Indians on the road from Winchester in 1760. His children, he pointed out, would survive and prosper.

During the feast, a more fortunate settler re-enactor named Richard Williams related his story of captivity and survival--he escaped his Indian captors three times. His captured daughter would not escape until 12 years later, re-learning English, and always wearing a bonnet to hide her scars from scalping.

The feasters also heard from Turtle, "an adopted Cherokee-Shawnee," who described how Indian spirituality shaped their ways of warfare with remarkable consistently across the centuries. Before battle, the warriors always sought guidance from a conjuror, who would intuit from the spirits the strength of the enemy.

Ultimately, the animism of Indian spirituality and warfare, though often successful, was no match for the systematic war-making of the British Army and their settler allies. The French, of course, had similar martial skills. But French Canada, to which immigration from old France had been discouraged, was sparsely populated and forced to rely on Indian allies.

In contrast, the American colonies had a population close to two million, thanks to English immigrants of all social classes, religious dissidents (both Catholic and Protestant), and swelling numbers of Germans, Scots-Irish, French Huguenots, Dutch, and Swiss--not to mention Africans, both slave and free. This conglomeration of nationalities, forcing their way across the mountains as the French and Indian War closed, forged a new nation with methods both savage and noble. The United States was the result.

The Battle of the Great Cacapon on April 18, 1756 was only small chapter in that epic. But it is not forgotten, at least not by the residents of Capon Bridge, West Virginia.

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